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Life as a Washington General: One victory, 17,000 defeats

Louis Herman Klotz accomplished something on January 5, 1971, that no basketball player has dared to match.

One of sports’ most revered unwritten laws was broken by the man known as Red in front of a skeptical crowd in the community of Martin, Tennessee. Klotz made the game-winning shot against the Harlem Globetrotters while serving as a player-coach for the Washington Generals.

Everyone is aware that the Generals shouldn’t triumph over the Globetrotters.

As jeers erupted across the university arena, Klotz would remark, “They looked at us like we’d just killed Santa.”

The Globetrotters have been brutal in exacting their retribution over the past more than 50 years. They’ve showboated their way to triumph at the expense of unfortunate Generals who have never again defeated their illustrious foes, all to the unmistakable melody of Sweet Georgia Brown.

The green jerseys of the notoriously unsuccessful Generals are booed, made fun of, and dunked on through defeat after defeat while the Globetrotters are universally adored.

The underdogs you’re not meant to support are the rarest of athletic treasures. That being the case, why would anyone want to play for the Washington Generals?

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“I had the time of my life playing with this team,” Antoine Maddox, a shooting guard for the Generals from 2007 to 2010, recalled. It’s quite amazing that you’re traveling with one of the most well-known teams in the world.

On a vocational placement day at his high school in LaGrange, Georgia, Maddox had his first memory of the Washington Generals. Maddox was given the chance to observe ‘Sweet’ Lou Dunbar, the famed Harlem Globetrotter, after telling his teachers that he wanted to play basketball. Soon, the eager schoolboy’s day job would be following Globetrotters shadows.

“Man, I wonder how those guys got that job,” I remember thinking as I watched the Washington Generals during a game, Maddox recalls.

When he was selected at a post-college combine, he would soon find out. Although many athletes join with relatively modest expectations of a professional future abroad, the next NBA great are frequently discovered at these open tryouts. Scouts for the General have their eyes set on those left behind.

“I still had some aspirations of going to play pro somewhere,” admits Maddox, who currently works for a tech company in California. I reasoned that at the very least I would be traveling and that there could be a chance to make an impression on some other teams.

Antoine Maddox of the Washington Generals is dribbled around by a gurgling Harlem Globetrotter.
In 2010, Antoine Maddox (number 22) of the Generals was injured by a Harlem Globetrotter in Budapest.
The Globetrotters live up to their name, playing numerous games during a season while on a thorough domestic tour before making quick visits to Europe, South America, and Asia. And their adversaries follow them everywhere.

After graduating from college, Maddox says, “I ended up visiting 26 different countries in my three years. It was the best experience you can ever have.”

There are occasionally visits to US military installations. David Birch, who served with the Generals for five years, recalls high-security journeys to Afghanistan, Germany, Lebanon, and even Japan.

“In Afghanistan, you had to have a helmet and vest on if you went outside of your base,” he explains. It was demanding, but also quite fulfilling since you got to interact with the troops serving overseas and give them entertainment; they were always really appreciative.

Even though Birch acknowledges that no one will become wealthy from a rookie contract with the Generals, playing basketball on an expense-paid international tour isn’t a bad way to pay the rent at home.

He says, “I felt that was a terrific deal. I’m compensated to go out, make a few threes, and travel.

One of Caleb Kimbrough’s favorite recollections of a season with the Generals is playing a game on the roof of the former Madison Square Garden arena for the Philadelphia 76ers. He’s pleased to have contributed in some tiny way to Globetrotters lore.

He says, “I genuinely enjoyed being a part of basketball history.

The Harlem Globetrotters were originally founded in Chicago in 1926. Owner Abe Saperstein, a white Jew who was born in London, adopted the Harlem name to make it clear to audiences that his team was black at a time when basketball was being played in a segregated environment.

As a result of their consistent victories over the nation’s premier all-white basketball teams, the Harlem Globetrotters went on to inspire a generation of black Americans. Chuck Cooper, Nat Clifton, and Hank DeZonie of the Globetrotters were among the first black athletes to participate in the NBA in 1950.

Saperstein’s team no longer needed to defeat the NBA elite to make a point because they had contributed to tearing down the sport’s racial barriers. Instead, they increased their use of theatrics to broaden their audience.

Saperstein desired a reliable opponent who could challenge his team each night while the Globetrotters were on the road.

He made the choice to call a point guard with flame-colored hair who, at 5 feet 7 inches, is still the shortest NBA champion ever thanks to a victory in 1948 with the Baltimore Bullets. Red Klotz was him.

The veteran of World War Two consented to assemble a top group of ballers and gave General Eisenhower’s name to his new team.

Although the term has anti-establishment mavericks poised to humble a stuffy elite, Klotz probably didn’t intend for it to have that connotation.

The Washington Generals and their Harlem rivals began their decades-long dance in 1952 when he chose to refer to his squad as the Ginger Rogers to the Globetrotters’ Fred Astaire.

But any idea that the Generals were extraordinary players in their own right had long since vanished by the time their founder fired that contentious victory as a spry 50-year-old in 1971.

Even the sporadic rebranding under names like New Jersey Reds and New York Nationals couldn’t stop them from earning the reputation of being perpetual losers in popular culture.

And it still goes on today.

Red Koltz, dressed in a suit, is seated on the Washington Generals’ bench next to other worn-out, defeated-appearing players.
Red Koltz, a former player and longtime coach for the Washington Generals, watches a game in 1994 in Stockton, California, versus the Harlem Globetrotters.
You may have seen Harvey Specter mocking the Generals in the television show Suits or Ted and Marshall screaming at a biased referee while sporting green jerseys in an episode of How I Met Your Mother. The Simpsons is another example, when Krusty the Clown curses a bad bet by saying, “I thought they were due!”

The spectator doesn’t require the humor to be explained in any of these cases. The Washington Generals are become a laughing stock.

Being the punchline extends to the court as well. Many of the actions, like throwing water buckets and tugging down shorts, are straight out of the circus. However, if the ringmasters are dressed in blue, the sad clown is being played by those in green.

Kimbrough chuckles, “I’d have my jersey torn off in the middle of the game, and I’d have to run off the court in my boxers.” He continues, “And I did the balloon free throw,” alluding to a skit in which a flyaway packed with helium serves in place of the basketball.

But not everyone enjoys appearing foolish. It can be challenging to play second fiddle when you’re used to being the collegiate star. The rate of player turnover is considerable when a demanding travel schedule is included.

As you can expect, it might be frustrating at times, acknowledges Kimbrough. They don’t treat you equally, but you know that going in. The majority of the roster stayed, and those men just got it. But there were others who would grow angry at the inequality.

“You’d see people cut mid-tour, for a ton of reasons, and I’ve seen people leave mid-game,” says Birch.

He remembers a time when a teammate quit during lunch.

The Globetrotters need to eat first so they can go sign autographs, he explains. It would irritate some folks that we would have to wait even though we would be in the cafeteria first.

Chamberlain, Wilt
Wilt Chamberlain, a future NBA superstar, while a member of the Harlem Globetrotters
Basketball players used to be able to make more money as Globetrotters than as professionals. Before turning old enough to play in the NBA in 1958, collegiate basketball sensation Wilt “the Stilt” Chamberlain traveled with Saperstein’s traveling cast.

As soon as he signed a $30,000 rookie contract with the Philadelphia Warriors (about £250,000 today), he would become the highest-paid player in the league. However, Chamberlain saw that as a wage cut. For a year on the road in the red and white shorts, he had made twice that much.

In their day, other legends like Meadowlark Lemon and the aforementioned Dunbar were also well-known. While the current lineup might not be as well-known or well-paid, there is a high possibility that even casual basketball fans can name a Harlem Globetrotter thanks to spin-off TV shows and guest spots on everything from Sesame Street to Ninja Warrior. Thunder Law, a current performer, has a number of Guinness World Records and 64,000 followers on social media.

The task of naming a Washington General is more difficult. None were mentioned in the tour program for the most recent UK tour, and none are currently featured on the Globetrotters website. Contrarians seeking to purchase Generals merch at a concert will likewise be let down.

Two hours before to tip-off, fans with Magic Passes can shoot hoops with the Globetrotters. The athletes are mic’d up so they may interact with the crowd live during the game. They remain on the court for a signing session throughout the “fifth quarter” as well.

The Generals, on the other hand, show up to loud boos and then slink away vanquished at the final bell. They only receive a microphone when they declare the location to be a dump.

You are not permitted to remain on the court to take photos, sign autographs, or conduct any press, according to Birch.

“There’s not a whole lot of fan interaction for us. It’s more just, we’re there, we play our game, and then we head off the court,” says Maddox, who adds that it may be a difficult baptism.

“At first, that’s kind of an ego check because maybe you want to be involved in that stuff,” said the speaker.

Some excursions might provide relief. The Generals occasionally receive recognition in cultures where the Globetrotters story is less well-known.

People in China and South America, where basketball isn’t the most popular sport, didn’t realize it wasn’t the NBA, Birch recalls.

“They would treat us the same way the Globetrotters were treated, hounding us for photos and signatures.

“We found it to be cool. We would never play anywhere else where you could experience what it was like to be a true NBA professional.

The relationship between the Generals and the Globetrotters is cordial despite the differences in money, workload, and recognition, especially when the two squads are traveling together overseas.

They also have a mutual secret.

In response to the obvious, Birch says, “Nobody signed up expecting they were going to win.

“It probably isn’t for you if you’re someone who wants to play genuine basketball and you’re too competitive. Because you’ll only become upset and give up like so many others.

The question you’re not meant to ask is: “How much of a Globetrotters show involves actual, competitive, five-on-five action?”

There’s a reason Mickey Mouse never takes his head off at Disneyland, so it seems sense that the organization would be reticent on the subject and that active gamers wouldn’t be allowed to discuss in-game mechanics.

Birch says, “They would always talk about how they don’t want to ruin the magic of the show,” before sharing information that might have led to his termination prior to his departure in 2015 to become a teacher.

At pre-season camp, choreographed show plays were practiced, but Birch also recalls that there were “play one” parts in games that allowed for real guard-and-block battle.

“Nearly half of the game was play one when I started my first year. In addition to knowing how the first quarter would proceed, we also understood how the fourth quarter would progress. But in the second and third, you simply played it out,” recalls Birch, who served as the team’s on-court coach and was in charge of making sure his teammates followed the plan.

By my fifth and final year, it had evolved into a full-fledged kid show from a sort of pick-up game with a comic component. So, for the whole of the game, we only had three or four players.

I was a basketball player when I entered, and I was an actress when I left.

Former players like Birch may no longer be bound by omertas, but most Generals veterans still go along with things—just as you wouldn’t anticipate Steve Austin or The Rock to divulge their professional wrestling secrets after retiring.

With a smile on his face, Maddox admits, “We had a lot of close games. We had some opportunities, but unfortunately, we came up short.

We had some close calls, but we never prevailed, Kimbrough says with an exaggerated head shake.

But for ambitious athletes who have dreamed of playing in the NBA their inborn need to compete must clash with seeing the Globetrotters unleash another dizzying weave.

Kimbrough, who is now a college basketball coach in Virginia, admits that “it was difficult.” But there were also parts of the game where you’re just having fun. We would play aggressively and our competitive juices would start to flow.

Occasionally, a little bit too well. Kimbrough remembers a day when the Generals were warned during a game at the Chicago Bulls’ arena.

We made so many threes that we were significantly in the lead, and I recall that one of the coaches gave us a nasty talking-to.

“Obviously, the Globetrotters won the game by magically coming back. But we Generals all agreed, “Oh sure, we won that one.

However, any player that poses a threat to eclipse the Globetrotters won’t be on the court for very long.

Harlem Globetrotter Shane ‘Scooter’ Christensen dribbles downcourt while dodging Washington General Caleb Kimbrough’s reach.
Three-placed Caleb Kimbrough finds it difficult to keep up with the Globetrotters’ Shane “Scooter” Christensen.
The Globetrotters’ coach might say, “Take him out,” after I’ve made five or six three-pointers and they are unable to make any shots. They don’t want us to appear better, Birch claims.

A tactical examination of a Globetrotters game is a fruitless endeavor, but observing the Generals in contrast to their rambunctious opponents is instructive.

The Generals are limited to attempts from a distance and do not have the option of dunking the rebound when they miss because the dazzling dunks are saved for their rivals.

However, they hardly ever do, consistently making a series of three-pointers, and occasionally even a four-pointer—a Globetrotter invention that rewards precision even further back.

There is no denying that the Generals are proficient shooters.

“You can’t take away from making a half-court hook shot,” claims Kimbrough, who has persuaded a number of his best pupils to join the Generals.

The Generals are the epitome of function over flair, but Globetrotters are frequently chosen for possessing an exceptional trait – the little guard who can jump high, the tall center who doesn’t need to, the quick forward with turbo handling.

You have to be a good utility player, says Maddox, who describes them as being more like your tried-and-true classic basketball type of guy. Very adept at handling the ball, an excellent distributor, and a deep understanding of the game.

“Your average person on the street might look at a game and think, ‘I can take a Washington General.’ But, you know, they probably can’t,” adds Maddox, who continues to go to Globetrotters games every year, dressed in green and supporting his old squad.

Birch, who led the NCAA in scoring while attending Ottawa University, is also quick to emphasize that his teammates weren’t losers.

We have several players that scored more than 2,000 points in college, and there are guys who can really play, but you still have to be a top level college player to play for the Generals.

Would they think they had a chance if the teams faced off in a match that was only competitive and free of scripts, props, and fake officials?

Birch insists: “If you asked any General, they would tell you 100%.” “They’d say the Generals are the more versatile players who can actually play real basketball, and if we played for real, we’d win more than they would,” said the player.

Globetrotters would respond, “No, we have the tricks, but we also have more skill.”

Is there even the slightest temptation to win for the first time since 1971 given that the Generals are, despite their reputation, talented and motivated athletes?

Birch asserts that everyone, including the referee, timekeeper, and announcer, would need to be in on the fake in order for that to happen, making it the most common question fans would ask him.

And despite how entertaining that might sound, few employees are prepared to risk their jobs in exchange for a little recognition.

“People would approach us and say, ‘Hey, why don’t you just go win once?But because you failed to fulfill your part in the show, your contract will be null and void. And this is what we do. Many folks wouldn’t take the chance.

Because of this, the infamous victory in Tennessee was probably the result of a timekeeper error, a rare instance of the Globetrotters shooting carelessly, and a notorious General who could get away with it.

Even though Red Klotz’s team may have lost more than 17,000 games, he insisted that his team always strove to win up until the day of his passing in 2014.

You never know if it will ever happen again. The Generals are due.


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